I am not hysterical, nor given to fainting. I simply wish to hear your real, real opinion."
"Upon what point?"
"In your heart of hearts, do you think that Neville is alive?"
Sherlock Holmes seemed to be embarrassed by the question. "Frankly, now!" she repeated, standing upon the rug and looking keenly down at him as he leaned back in a basket-chair.
"Frankly, then, madam, I do not."
"You think that he is dead?"
"I don't say that. Perhaps."
"And on what day did he meet his death?"
"Then perhaps, Mr. Holmes, you will be good enough to explain how it is that I have received a letter from him to-day."
Sherlock Holmes sprang out of his chair as if he had been galvanised.
"What!" he roared.
"Yes, to-day." She stood smiling, holding up a little slip of paper in the air.
"May I see it?"
He snatched it from her in his eagerness, and smoothing it out upon the table he drew over the lamp and examined it intently. I had left my chair and was gazing at it over his shoulder. The envelope was a very coarse one and was stamped with the Gravesend postmark and with the date of that very day, or rather of the day before, for it was considerably after midnight.
"Coarse writing," murmured Holmes. "Surely this is not your husband's writing, madam."
"No, but the enclosure is."
"I perceive also that whoever addressed the envelope had to go and inquire as to the address."
"How can you tell that?"
"The name, you see, is in perfectly black ink, which has dried itself. The rest is of the greyish colour, which shows that blotting-paper has been used. If it had been written straight off, and then blotted, none would be of a deep black shade. This man has written the name, and there has then been a pause before he wrote the address, which can only mean that he was not familiar with it. It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles. Let us now see the letter. Ha! there has been an enclosure here!"
"Yes, there was a ring. His signet-ring."
"And you are sure that this is your husband's hand?"
"One of his hands."
"His hand when he wrote hurriedly. It is very unlike his usual writing, and yet I know it well."
"'Dearest do not be frightened. All will come well. There is a huge error which it may take some little time to rectify. Wait in patience.--NEVILLE.' Written in pencil upon the fly-leaf of a book, octavo size, no water-mark. Hum! Posted to-day in Gravesend by a man with a dirty thumb. Ha! And the flap has been gummed, if I am not very much in error, by a person who had been chewing tobacco. And you have no doubt that it is your husband's hand, madam?"
"None. Neville wrote those words."
"And they were posted to-day at Gravesend. Well, Mrs. St. Clair, the clouds lighten, though I should not venture to say that the danger is over."
"But he must be alive, Mr. Holmes."
"Unless this is a clever forgery to put us on the wrong scent. The ring, after all, proves nothing. It may have been taken from him."
"No, no; it is, it is his very own writing!"
"Very well. It may, however, have been written on Monday and only posted to-day."
"That is possible."
"If so, much may have happened between."
"Oh, you must not discourage me, Mr. Holmes. I know that all is well with him. There is so keen a sympathy between us that I should know if evil came upon him. On the very day that I saw him last he cut himself in the bedroom, and yet I in the dining-room rushed upstairs instantly with the utmost certainty that something had happened. Do you think that I would respond to such a trifle and yet be ignorant of his death?"
"I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner. And in this letter you certainly have a very strong piece of evidence to corroborate your view. But if your husband is alive and able to write letters, why should he remain away from you?"
"I cannot imagine.